The Origins of the Great Schism


The Origins of the Great Schism

By Ben Korta

The University of Arizona Undergraduate Historical Review, Vol.1 (2009)

Introduction: The ideal of a unified Christendom, a body of Christian believers under one Holy Catholic Church, was put forth by Church fathers in the Nicene Creed. But even while united under Constantine‘s conversion and the historic aegis of the Roman Empire, the new Christendom inherited a deep cultural division between its Western Latin and Eastern Greek peoples. A progressive estrangement, provoked by these cultural but also theological and political differences, ultimately caused the final rupture of the Church known as the Great Schism. But while these multiple paths toward schism—in the form of divergent cultural and theological traditions—would undoubtedly influence this progressive estrangement, they collided only as a result of the Crusades, which alone would seal the irreparable schism within Christendom.




In examining the cultural division of the Greeks and Latins, it is important to understand its greater socio-political context, taking into account that these peoples thrived for centuries as Romans. While cultural differences were not the decisive cause of schism, they nevertheless reinforced a progressive estrangement between the Latin and Greek peoples of Christendom. One of the more profound of such differences—and one which would shape the course of religious development in the eastern and western worlds—is the nature of the Latin and Greek languages. Greek is a language of introspection; a single word can comprise shades of meaning, reflecting a culture of speculative philosophy at once tedious and esoteric to those uncomfortable with its abstraction. Latin, on the other hand, is a language of law; words are rigid and inflexible, suitable for a people more comfortable with formula than speculation.

It is thus understandable that both Greeks and Latins would eventually develop two different ways of approaching Christianity, as exemplified by two early church leaders, Tertullian of the West, and his contemporary Clement of Alexandria of the East. Tertullian offered constructions of faith, such as the regulai fidei or rule of faith, and coined new words like “Trinity” which provided for the basic doctrines of Christianity. Conversely, Clement was more meditative, rather than closing theological debate with formulas like Tertullian, Clement introduced new problems and in turn stimulated discussion as to the realities of Christianity. These divergent tendencies shaped the developing religious consciousness of both cultures.

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Sharan Newman